How Did Wolves Become Dogs?

Learn about the journey of man’s best friend

When you look at a dog, especially a dog like a Pomeranian or dachshund, it’s hard to imagine that it came from the wolf. How did this transformation take place?

 

The connection between dogs and humans is highlighted by the scientific name of the domestic dog: Canis familiaris. From tiny Chihuahuas to massive Great Danes, dogs pull sleds, hunt, keep watch, and even retrieve nets!

Table of Contents

How did wolves become small dogs?

Dogs might be the most familiar animal to live with humans, but they are not the only ones. Farm animals, like goats, cows, pigs, and chickens, as well as other companion animals, like cats, have been crucial in shaping the path of human evolution. The key to changing animals into our furry friends is a process known as domestication.

 

Domestication is a long process that takes place over generations. It involves human care for a group of animals. Animals typically provide us with food or material for clothing. In return, humans provide food, shelter, and even healthcare!

 

Every domesticated animal has a wild counterpart from which it came. Cows likely came from the extinct auroch, and chickens probably originated from jungle fowl.

The Indian auroch
The Indian auroch, Credit: Wikimedia/Mairie de Sénas
Red_Junglefowl_
The red jungle fowl, Credit: Wikimedia/Francesco Veronesi

The auroch and red jungle fowl look strikingly similar to our modern cattle and chickens, but a gray wolf and a Chihuahua? Now, that’s a little harder to believe. In addition to providing shelter, humans also pick which individuals to breed together. This is a process known as selective breeding. Humans select the traits that are most useful for them. In one generation of the domestic animals, they pick the individuals which have the best traits, and breed them together.

 

Imagine you want a fluffy, long-haired dog because you live in a very cold area. You pick the two fluffiest, longest-haired individuals among your dogs and breed them together to make an even fluffier, even longer-haired dog. Scientists are trying to replicate the process performed by humans thousands of years ago by domesticating the silver fox. Each generation, they choose the tamest, most friendly foxes and breed them together.

The Russian silver fox
The Russian silver fox, Credit: Wikimedia/Zefram

Large wolves may look majestic, but large animals need lots of food! Humans probably selectively bred small dogs to create certain tiny breeds which do not need so much to eat.

When did dogs evolve from wolves?

When we picture wolves, we often picture the North American gray wolf. There are many species of wolves around the world. Strictly speaking, dogs did not evolve from the gray wolf. The gray wolf and the domestic dog likely shared a common ancestor, known as the Pleistocene wolf.

 

The Pleistocene lasted from about 2.6 million years ago to 11,700 years ago. The Pleistocene wolf went extinct around 7,500 years ago.

A reconstruction of the Pleistocene wolf, based on fossil evidence
A reconstruction of the Pleistocene wolf, based on fossil evidence, Credit: Wikimedia/Theo de Jong

We began domesticating a group of the Pleistocene wolves around 25,000 years ago, making them the oldest domesticated animal! To date, the dog is the only successfully domesticated large carnivore. To put that in perspective, dogs are older than the first successful agricultural civilization.

 

Archaeologists use various different methods to understand the relationship between humans and dogs. Almost all of these rely on fossil evidence and remains. Fossils of ancient Pleistocene wolves over time show a change in bone structure that comes to resemble modern dogs. We can also tell the relationship between humans and ancient animals based on the condition of the bones. For example, mammoth bones show marks that indicate hunting and human consumption.

 

In the Mediterranean, archaeologists found remains of dog bones which were broken and then healed. In the wild, a broken bone certainly means death for a carnivore. If a broken bone was healed, it means humans cared for the dog and nursed them back to health. They weren’t left to die, indicating a relationship that was more than just helping each other out.

 

A new discovery of an 8,000-year-old cave carving in Saudi Arabia showed humans and dogs hunting together. Some dogs were even on leashes!

A carving of a dog found in Hawaii
A carving of a dog found in Hawaii, Credit: Wikimedia/Daniel

What was the first dog?

The oldest remains that almost all archaeologists agree was a “true dog” was the Born-Oberkassel dog. It was found in Germany, buried alongside two humans.

 

Archaeologists are still struggling to figure out exactly when and where the first dogs originated, and what they looked like. Genetic evidence suggests that they originated 25,000 years ago around Eurasia, migrating through Siberia, Europe, and even Japan. Cave paintings around 6,000 years ago appear similar to the present-day basenji, and this similarity is supported by genetic evidence. This breed has changed little over the last 6,000 years, and was definitely present during the agricultural revolution. Dogs belonging to the first human farmers probably looked like the basenji!

The basenji breed
The basenji breed, Credit: Wikimedia/fugzu

Did we breed wolves into dogs?

Yes and no! Dogs descended from a form of a wolf that existed during the Pleistocene but are quite different from the gray wolf that we find in North America today.

Glossary

Domestication: The process of causing morphological and behavioral differences and a separation from the wild version of that species

 

Pleistocene: A period in history between 2.6 million years ago and 11,700 years ago

 

Selective breeding: A choice made by humans to select favorable traits

Flesch Kincaid Grade Level: 8.2

 

Flesch Kincaid Reading Ease: 56.1

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Author

  • Yamini Srikanth

    Yamini's (he/they) interests lie in environmental education, science communication and trying to build a better world. When not languishing in front of his laptop, they can be found outside, poking at any insect, bird or plant. They love making science accessible, especially to those who aren't encouraged to pursue it. Yamini hopes that the young women who read Smore love learning from their articles and get just a little bit more excited about science!